Disease and historical fiction, Part II

There’s no way to get around including these diseases if you’re writing historical. While you shouldn’t be expected to include each and every disease, it’s important to know about the diseases your characters and/or their children would’ve likely suffered, and possibly died from.

Tetanus, known since antiquity and caused by things like stepping on a rusty nail or puncturing your skin with a knife. It frequently starts with lockjaw and continues with spasms throughout the body. If it gets worse, it can cause breathing problems, muscle tears, fractures, and problems swallowing. The first anti-tetanus toxoid was introduced in 1924, and given to the military en masse in 1942. The DTP vaccine came out in 1930, and TDap/DTaP (for teens and adults) came in 1942.

Smallpox, thank God eradicated in 1979 and never a part of my lifetime, other than specimens in two labs. It arose thousands of years ago, and struck people from all walks of life, royalty to peasants, all over the world. Victims had pustules all over their bodies, and often were left with permanent pox scars. The heroic Dr. Edward Jenner developed his wonderful vaccine in 1796, and by the late 19th century, smallpox vaccination had become very widespread. By the early 20th century, most Western countries had drastically reduced the incidence rates, though people were still vaccinated as a precaution.

Polio, around since antiquity but only reaching epidemic proportions in the 1880s in Europe and 1894 in the U.S. A terrifying epidemic raged in 1916, starting from Brooklyn. The worst came in the Forties and Fifties. Some people caught non-paralytic polio, which clears up fairly quickly, but many others caught paralytic polio. Depending upon how severe the case, the victim could be left paralysed for life. Many parents forbade their children to go into pools and other bodies of water in the Summer, for fear of lurking polio. The worst cases could be confined to iron lungs. Fellow Pittsburgher Dr. Jonas Salk developed his wonderful vaccine in 1955, to the gratitude of everyone everywhere.

Diphtheria, the disease that killed little Mary Gilbreth of the Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes family. This disease causes the neck to balloon up, and many children died because they could no longer breathe. It’s been around since antiquity, but wasn’t given its name till 1826. This was one of the most feared diseases of childhood, one of the most frequent causes of childhood mortality. The Schick Test, which determined potential immunity, was developed in 1913, and a toxin-antitoxin begun to be available in large cities by 1921. Many people in Europe contracted diphtheria in 1943.

Whooping cough (pertussis), nicknamed the 100-day cough. It’s been with us since at least the 16th century, and is most likely to kill babies and small children due to their immature lungs. Coughing spasms often cause vomiting, turning blue, the inability to breathe for up to a minute, and breaking ribs.

Scarlet fever (scarlatina), a red rash accompanied by fever and sore throat, most common among ages 4-8. It can strike older people too; I know someone who got it at age 12 in modern times. The tongue also turns scarlet, and it’s very painful once the rashy skin starts peeling off. It’s been around for sure since at least the 16th century, possibly earlier. A vaccine came out in 1924, and was replaced by penicillin in the Forties. This disease has commonly appeared in historical fiction and older books, such as Little Women, All-of-a-Kind Family, The Velveteen Rabbit, Frankenstein, and the Little House books.

Measles, a highly contagious disease almost everyone got till the wonderful vaccine came along in 1963. It enrages me that the vaccine-denialists truly believe measles is no big deal and is never fatal. Tell that to little Olivia Dahl, daughter of children’s writer Roald Dahl, or the 16 children who die per hour every day because they’re unvaccinated. In Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (1881), 10-year-old Polly almost loses her eyesight to measles.


5 thoughts on “Disease and historical fiction, Part II

  1. You’re right; this stuff is serious business, not something to gloss over at all. Tetanus alone was a really nasty problem pre-1924. Getting cut or wounded used to pose much more of a threat than what we’ve become accustomed to as the norm.


  2. I always wonder about tetanus. People didn’t wash their hands as often and were always working, in the fields, with metals… I’m surprised it didn’t happen more often!


  3. Hi from Inkpageant.

    Sadly, as you mentioned above, some of these diseases are getting a resurgence thanks to anti-vaccine folks. People, especially kids and older folks, can die from them. The people who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons depend on the immunity of others


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